The benefits of anxiety and why it could actually be your superpower | wit and pleasure

Editor’s Note: This article explores some of the benefits of anxiety through a personal lens and based on ever-linked research. For individualized mental health information and care, contact a trusted health professional.

It was the last thing I wanted to do, but I signed up anyway: read some of my writing in front of an audience. I was so anxious about it, so scared of freezing in front of everyone, of panicking, and shortening my reading to be anxious in solitude, that I practiced immensely. I read and reread my article out loud to myself. I cut out the words I stumbled over. I cut out the superfluous. I practiced a little more. And when it came time for me to stand in front of a large group of people to read my own writing, I didn’t stumble over a single word. Not for three minutes.

It took me until I sat back in my chair afterwards, hands shaking, adrenaline still coursing through my veins, thick as syrup, that I realized I’d done it without messing it up at all.

How could I have done so well at something I was so anxious about?

The answer is within the question. My anxiety made me prepare almost to the point of over-preparing. I practiced until it was harder to fail than to succeed. And so I did: I delivered. I read my secret writings, my vulnerable words, and I did it in front of writers, teachers, and academics. A nightmare if you ask an anxious person.

It could be argued that the reason I did well was because I practiced. And one would be right to say that. But the reason I practiced to the extent that I did was because of my anxiety.

Anxiety is not a blanket affliction, covering everyone in exactly the same way, but it seems to me that those with a propensity to feel anxious operate a little differently. They tend to think things through before doing them. In the example of reading in front of an audience, an anxious person might think of all the things that could go wrong: losing their place in their piece; locking knees and passing out (this was a sincere fear of mine); panicking during your reading and needing to leave in the middle.

Anxiety, for an unbelievably good reason, gets a bad rap. It makes operation very challenging at times. But there’s a lot to be said for changing the way we think about anxiety.

The benefit of this kind of agonizing and painful thinking is that it can really make you prepare.

I went into this reading having already considered the worst results. I not only considered them, but I assumed that I would experience each one and therefore knew exactly what to do when those bad results inevitably hit me. Except they never did. I had read my article so many times that if I had gotten lost, I would have known exactly where on the page to look to continue. I made sure to keep my knees slightly bent, a skill I learned in high school choir, so I wouldn’t lock them and pass out in front of an audience. And I addressed my fear of panicking midway by reminding myself that I only have three minutes. I can do almost anything for just three minutes, including something that terrifies me and many others: public speaking.

Psychologist Chloe Carmichael, Ph.D. says that anxiety has a salutary function: to stimulate preparatory behavior. You don’t need to be anxious to prepare or not to procrastinate. But if you’re one of those people who likes to wrap its fingers around anxiety, there are ways to use it to your advantage. How to know the worst results and work from there; how to prepare until it is no longer feasible to be more prepared.

Anxiety, for an unbelievably good reason, gets a bad rap. It makes operation very challenging at times. But there’s a lot to be said for changing the way we think about anxiety and using it as a force for productivity.

Another benefit of anxiety? It often sheds light on our core values.

New York University Professor of Neural Sciences and Psychology Dr. Wendy Suzuki wrote a brilliant book called Good Anxiety: Harnessing the power of the most misunderstood emotion. It’s a science-based book that helps readers shift their perspective from jail cell anxiety to something that can enhance performance, build compassion, foster creativity, and give you other superpowers, as she calls them. In the book, Dr. Suzuki says that the sources of our anxiety are indicators of what we value in life, indicating what is important or valuable to us.

I think that’s amazing. The things we get anxious about are actually indications that we are passionate about something. It means that we care, and we care enough to be proactive in preserving what is valuable to us.

All of that requires a certain level of understanding. In an interview with NPR, Dr. Suzuki says there’s a gift that can come from his anxiety: the “what if” list. “What if I don’t know the answer? What if I’m asked about this part of the book and I don’t remember the study? Everyone can turn their “what if” list into a to-do list.” She goes on to say that our stress and anxiety activate our muscles to do something, to take action.

The things we get anxious about are actually indications that we are passionate about something. It means that we care, and we care enough to be proactive in preserving what is valuable to us.

The list of benefits goes on…

From the Harvard Business Review essay series on leading through anxiety: “Decades of research on emotional intelligence have shown that people who understand their own feelings have higher job satisfaction, better job performance, and better relationships; they are more innovative; and can synthesize diverse opinions and decrease conflict.”

All of that sounds great. So what’s the caveat?

It’s one thing to use your anxiety to propel you forward, but to use it so a lot; Thinking about it over and over and over again will only stop you in your tracks. Worse yet, it will stop you in your tracks and lead to the cloudy state of panic that all of us anxious people fear the most.

If you get to that point, here are some helpful things you can do the next time you’re feeling anxious. And if I know my fellow anxious people like I think I do, I know you’ll read it now so that the next time anxiety knocks on your door, you’ll be prepared. Combine that with 50 Ways to Beat Anxiety, written by Alice Boyes, Ph.D., author of The Anxiety Toolkit.

Another resource, the best I’ve found (besides therapy), is a book called Dare: the new way to end anxiety and stop panic attacks By Barry McDonagh. It helps you see anxiety through the same lens that Dr. Wendy Suzuki suggests: as a positive behavior that can really benefit you, but only if you keep it in check. This book gives you practical ways to ease her anxiety, and work. They work for me like nothing has ever done before.

Always, it must be said: If you need help, our friends at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline are here for you, any time of day. The number is 1.800.273.8255. As of July 16, 2022, those in the United States can now dial 988 and they will be connected directly to Lifeline. Here is the website for more information.

Take care of yourself.

Treat your head like the temple that it is. And when you can, remember that at the beginning of time anxiety was our friend. She kept us alive. There are benefits to being anxious, we just sometimes need to be reminded of them.

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